Opinion: Why Leiden University needs democratization

UvA problems are Leiden problems, claim Thomas Fossen, Cissie Fu, and Nicholas Vrousalis. ‘If we want to avoid the mess, we need such structural reform.’

One response to the Maagdenhuis occupation sometimes heard in Leiden is that the problems in Amsterdam do not directly concern Leiden University. The immediate problems that sparked the protests in Amsterdam appear to be specific to the UvA: real estate speculation, imposed mergers between faculties, top-down restructuring of faculties, and sudden deep budget cuts. A set of more general concerns, such as “rendementsdenken” in teaching and research and the exploitation of temporary staff, affect Leiden as well. However, they result from the way in which teaching and research are funded by the government, and therefore appear to be matters for The Hague, not Leiden University in particular.
The reality is that all these problems concern Leiden directly. To see why, we need to step back for a moment and ask: What made the Amsterdam malaise possible in the first place? Why did the most egregious problems occur there, rather than in Leiden?
To cut a long story short, these problems are rooted in the structure of university governance: who gets to make the decisions, and to whom those decision-makers are accountable. In general, it is clear who makes the decisions within the university: the Executive Board at the level of the whole university, the Faculty Board at the level of each faculty, and the Board of each institute or department at the sub-faculty level. To whom are these decision-makers accountable? The head of the institute to the dean, the dean to the rector, and the rector to the Board of Supervisors. Finally, the Board of Supervisors is appointed by the Minister of Education. So decisions flow downward, while accountability flows upward.
It is this structure of governance that provoked the situation in Amsterdam. The fact that decisions and accountability flow in opposite directions entrenches a disconnection between management and the academic community. As a consequence, unresponsiveness to staff and students does not diminish the ability of decision-makers to make decisions. Furthermore, the accountability of management to the Board of Supervisors, an organ that has no meaningful connection to the academic community it oversees, fosters a mentality, with accompanying standards of successful management, that is alien to the values of the community it governs.
This structure of power in the university is largely enshrined in law. It is the same for Leiden and Amsterdam. So the explanation for the apparent lack of urgency in Leiden as opposed to Amsterdam is: sheer luck. There is no structural reason why governance at Leiden University should be different from Amsterdam. UvA’s management pressed through decisions and policies with profound influence on the academic community with little regard for its members and values; we are not accusing the current Leiden Executive Board of the same rashness, or of tyrannical intentions of any kind. The crucial point, nonetheless, is that we are entirely dependent on the ongoing good will of those appointed by an external body. There are no structural safeguards against the Leiden Executive Board pushing through a megalomaniac project such as, for instance, a merger between the universities of Leiden, Delft, and Rotterdam. Leiden has just been fortunate, thus far. This is why Amsterdam problems are Leiden problems too. We should not be in a situation where we are entirely subjected to the arbitrary will of those in charge. A good master is still a master.
In brief: the fact that those in charge, at all levels at the university, are accountable to no one except managers higher up the hierarchy, fueled the current situation in Amsterdam. A similar structure exists in Leiden. It follows that the democratization of the university is as imperative here as it is in Amsterdam.

It is about control, not communication
Because the problem does not concern the intentions that the decision-makers actually hold, but the intentions that they can and may very well form, our appropriate response cannot only consist in demanding more openness and transparency. Our university is already open to suggestions for improvement. The rector recently issued a personnel monitor to assess employee satisfaction, stating: “Your opinion counts, so let your voice be heard!” Whether your opinions have any effect on decisions, however, remains entirely up to the management. Instead of relying on the good will of the powerful, staff and students who constitute the academic community should exercise control over the running of the university.
Absolute and arbitrary rule is compatible with openness and transparency. Consider the regime of Louis XVI just prior to the French Revolution. The monarchy conducted a vast operation to collect cahiers de doléances, grievance books, from the various estates. Lists of concerns were submitted from all over the country, from large cities to small villages. These ranged from disaffection with local leadership and unfair taxes to pigeons eating crops. The king listened to his subjects, but of course it remained entirely up to him to decide whether and how to address their concerns. As subsequent events showed, openness without control is both ineffective and dangerous.
In Leiden, there are councils representing staff and students at the sub-faculty, faculty, and university level. But, not unlike the Estates-General under an absolute monarch, these councils have no significant decision-making power or any way to hold decision-makers to account. The miserable turnout in council elections betrays their feebleness.
In short, the academic community needs to have more control over the way in which it is governed. Decisions affecting the community should be subject to effective deliberation with and contestation from its members.

Reverse the direction of accountability
There is much to say about the way in which self-government might be implemented at different levels of the university. Here is one concrete proposal that addresses the heart of the problem. The idea is to make the Executive Board directly accountable to the University Council instead of the Board of Supervisors. More concretely the proposal would:

Let the Executive Board and the Rector Magnificus be appointed by and be accountable to the University Council.
Give the University Council the right to amend and approve all policy, budgets, and agreements with the government.
Give the Board of Supervisors an advisory role and a formal check on the quality of budgets and policies.

On this proposal, decision-makers are accountable, first and foremost, to the academic community. Accountability flows downward. If we want Leiden to avoid the mess of the UvA, we need such structural reform.

Thomas Fossen and Cissie Fu are assistant professors of political philosophy at the Institute for Philosophy. Nicholas Vrousalis is assistant professor of political philosophy at the Institute of Political Science.

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